Iran is the ’Most Difficult Challenge’ for the Nonproliferation Regime

Linton F. Brooks, a member of the CFR Task Force on U.S. nuclear weapons policy, says Iran is "probably the most difficult challenge for the nonproliferation regime" and the United States must prioritize the reinstatement of an arms control process with Russia.  

May 04, 2009

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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Linton F. Brooks, a member of the CFR Task Force on U.S. nuclear weapons policy, who has had a long career in arms-control negotiations, says that Iran is "probably the most difficult challenge for the nonproliferation regime." He says the Task Force felt that if Iran did produce a nuclear weapon, it would persuade countries in the region such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia to seek to do the same. The potential for Iran to prompt other states to develop a nuclear capability makes it a bigger challenge than North Korea, which is "less technically capable," Brooks says. He says the Task Force’s most important recommendations deal with how the United States should reinstate an arms control process with Russia.

You are a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Task Force on U.S. nuclear weapons policy, which has just issued its report. Of all the recommendations in this report, which do you regard as the most important?

I’ll have to answer that in two ways. The most important are the recommendations associated with reinitiating the arms control process with Russia, because that’s important in terms of both U.S. and Russian stability. But those recommendations are also pretty mainstream. The recommendations on China are also pretty important. The nature of the report is that it’s hard to pick out a single recommendation because it is so sweeping. Finally, the fact that it acknowledges the importance of continuing to maintain the existing nuclear weapons stockpile is very important.

The question of dealing with the Russians is an interesting one. I remember in 1963 when the United States and the Soviet Union negotiated the Limited Test Ban Treaty, which banned tests in space and above ground and led to the first Nonproliferation Treaty in 1968 and the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the two Strategic Arms Reduction treaties (START). You have been a negotiator in the START talks. The treaty is due for renewal at the end of this year. That is given priority in this report, right?

There are several reasons why the United States walked away from summits on defensive systems. But the biggest was a concern about Iran and North Korea. Nobody believes that we are going to deploy defenses that can deal with a Russian strike.

That is correct. The report wisely argues that what is important is to move forward, and it acknowledges that the next treaty will probably be modest. What’s important is that we get back in the habit of working the arms control process. The report makes the point that the actual number is less important than the notion of a legally binding regime that’s focused on stability. That appears to be the approach that the new administration is embarking on also.

One of the early treaties, of course, was the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty of 1972. Now the United States has abrogated that treaty, or walked away from defensive weapons limitations. Is there an effort to resume talks in that field?

It’s important to be precise. When people say "abrogate" they usually mean walking away in a way that breaks the treaty. The United States didn’t do that. The United States withdrew under the provisions of the treaty which allowed withdrawal with six months notice. And in fact there were voices calling for simply walking away, but President George W. Bush decided that the United States would follow the international legal regime. I don’t see that there’s any significant prospects of a new treaty on defensive arms. The Council’s report does not call for such a treaty. It does call for discussions with Russia over the deployment of interceptors in Europe.

There are several reasons why the United States walked away from summits on defensive systems. But the biggest was a concern about Iran and North Korea. Nobody believes that we are going to deploy defenses that can deal with a Russian strike. Some people believe that’s not possible, others believe it’s possible but that we don’t need it. Still others believe that it’s possible but only at an incredibly high price. You’ll find respectable people on all points, but nobody believes we’re actually going to do that. The defenses the United States are deploying are aimed at missiles from North Korea and Iran. It turns out that if you want to engage with missiles with Iran, it is useful to have radars on the Europe continent, and it’s useful to have interceptors on the European continent.

The previous administration proposed a radar in the Czech Republic and ten interceptor missiles in Poland. The interceptor missiles in Poland particularly bothered the Russians a great deal. The Task Force report says that we need to discuss this with them in great detail and suggests that we need to work on confidence-building measures so they’ll be aware that the United States has no anti-Russian intent. The new administration appears to be leaning in that direction. It has hinted, which is the right way to say it, that if the Russians are able to work with us to prevent the Iranians from developing ballistic missiles there would be no need to have those defenses.

I interviewed Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russia analyst, who said recently that Moscow’s concern about the interceptors in Poland was that they could be used as weapons against Moscow.

There are two kinds of concerns. There have been occasional Russians who have spoken as if they can be used to strike targets in Russia, and that’s just simply wrong. But the Russians have always had a conservative approach to the analysis of their strategic forces. Their concern is not with ten interceptors, but that you could expand the numbers and then they could be used to prevent a retaliatory strike. The Russians have worried for a long time that they have to be able to preserve the ability to respond in case they’re attacked. We do this primarily by keeping invulnerable submarines armed with missiles at sea. They do not. So their concern is a worst-case concern, but it’s not a totally irrational one. I should be more precise on what the Task Force recommends. The Task Force does recommend explicitly that we delay ballistic missile defense in Europe based on two thoughts. One questions whether the performance of the system has yet been fully demonstrated, but the real geopolitical point is that we shouldn’t deploy it until we’re sure it’s needed. The Task Force holds out the hope, and it’s fair to say that it’s not much more than a hope, that we’ll be able to reach an agreement with Iran that will make this irrelevant.

The Task Force focused on strengthening the nonproliferation regime to contain Iranian proliferation, and it did not get into political or military solutions. It is not a recipe for how we deal with Iran in that sense.

Let’s talk about Iran, because that’s the issue that gets the most attention these days. The Iranians keep insisting that they’re only enriching uranium for purposes of peaceful nuclear power development. Yet everybody around the world seems to assume that they’re doing this to have the possibility to develop nuclear weapons. What’s your read on this situation?

They’re at minimum preserving the option. I have no idea whether they’ve made any firm decisions, but what we know is that they have been in violation of their International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] safeguards. We know that they have been in violation of UN Security Council resolutions calling on them to suspend the enrichment. We believe that there was a military program. We know that enrichment is the long pole of the tent. Every economic analysis shows that it would be far more cost-effective for them to accept, for example, the Russian offer for joint enrichment at Angarsk, in Russia.

What seems to be going on is a combination of two things. One is national pride. The Iranians are a proud people who are very conscious of the fact that they are part of an ancient civilization. There is an element of national pride. It’s very hard to find an Iranian who doesn’t support their nuclear program in some way or another. But it also appears to many of us that they are at least preserving the option for acquiring nuclear weapons. I certainly believe that, and the Task Force makes the point that they can produce a weapon with highly enriched uranium within a few months.

The Task Force focused on strengthening the nonproliferation regime to contain Iranian proliferation, and it did not get into political or military solutions. It is not a recipe for how we deal with Iran in that sense. It makes the point that there is a great deal of concern, because for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, or even to be seen as able to deploy them quite quickly, may cause other countries in the Middle East to reconsider their own position. Turkey is an obvious choice, which is under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. But if anything were to happen that would weaken that umbrella, Turkey would consider a weapons program. It’s easy to forget that there’s a good deal of tension between Iran and some of the Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia. In many ways, Iran is probably the most difficult challenge for the nonproliferation regime. The report basically focuses on those aspects and says it’s going to be silent on any issues about military action.

Is North Korea a lesser problem?

It is lesser in the sense that the regime is probably less technically capable. It’s very clear that the North Koreans have several weapons. That matters primarily if they’re able to deliver them. The nuclear test they did in 2006 surprised people. On one hand, they have an awful lot of failures. They’re progressing somewhat more slowly. On the other hand, they’re a very unpredictable regime. Both regimes are difficult to predict for quite different reasons. The Iranian government is a complex structure that really doesn’t put anybody clearly in charge. The Iranian president actually doesn’t have anything like the authority that the American president has. The supreme religious figure, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has that authority.

In North Korea, the authority is concentrated in one man, Kim Jong-Il, but we don’t quite understand the pressures that he’s under and the constituencies that he has to satisfy. We also don’t understand whether or not there’s any kind of orderly succession. There are reports about Kim Jong-Il setting up one of his sons, Kim Jong-un, to succeed him, but this is not as established as successions in the past. North Korea is a more containable problem. South Korea and Japan are perfectly comfortable under the U.S. nuclear umbrella and China is already a nuclear power, so it’s not as easy to see a domino effect if we’re not able to roll back the North Korean problem. Iran is the more serious problem both because it’s probably technically more capable, but also because it is more likely to engender competing programs in adjacent states than Korea is.